Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer
Cape Town – Currie Cup champions the Sharks are already being
tipped for a fast start to the South African conference in Super Rugby 2014 ...
possibly one from which they will be difficult to haul in by domestic rivals.
It is an understandable sentiment, not least because there
are expectations of a bright new era at Kings Park with a new chief executive
in John Smit, World Cup-winning coach Jake White pulling the tactical strings
and some decent new and fit-again personnel to boost the playing staff.
But the roster also seems to suit the Sharks – a
disappointing fourth in the conference and eighth overall in 2013 – given the
nine-game initial stretch for them all on South African soil and with seven of
those fixtures in Durban.
They also get a tantalising, opening-game opportunity to put
one over the Bulls, last season’s conference-winning team and eventual losing
semi-finalists, as the February 15 derby clash is at Kings Park.
While the Pretoria-based side ought to remain at the very
least competitive, they have shed several once-staple figures since last year’s
competition and the absence of points machine Morne Steyn will be particularly
hard to adjust to: 2014 could be a season of rebuilding characteristics rather
than significant silverware assault.
While it is no longer quite the yardstick it used to be, the
Bulls’ struggle in the 2013 Currie Cup, when they failed to make the last four,
possibly serves as a pointer to some Super Rugby angst before the three-time
champions reach those sorts of lofty levels once again.
The Cheetahs, so many big-city South Africans’ favourite
“second team” in the competition, arguably punched above their weight in
commendably making the playoffs last season and might do well to ride so high
again, whilst the Lions simply don’t have enough stellar names to be anything
but occasional upsetters of bigger guns in the SA group.
Which probably means that last season’s Currie Cup
finalists, the Sharks and WP (now back in their Stormers branding) will be many
bookies’ bets -- in that order -- as strongest challengers for the overall
honours from these shores.
But just how useful an ally will the Sharks’ draw prove to
There can be little doubt that early momentum is a strong
likelihood for the team, henceforth to be led by combative Springbok hooker
Bismarck du Plessis.
The flip side, perhaps, is that they undergo their
four-match Australasian leg quite late (in May, when New Zealand conditions
especially can start to get a bit grim), and also that six of their last seven
ordinary-season matches are away from home.
In broad terms, however, it is felt the Sharks don’t have
too much reason for complaint.
When the Stormers’ itinerary was revealed, by contrast, Cape
observers were fairly quick to brand it a “draw from hell”.
Their motivation was two-pronged: the franchise have another
of those rather meaningless and unwanted first-round byes this year – it is far
better for obvious reasons to have breaks during the gruelling programme rather
than before it even starts for a team – and just about as tough an overseas
programme as you could imagine (Crusaders, Chiefs, Brumbies, Reds; no
lightweight foe among them).
Once the tour is over, though, the Stormers can weigh up 10
games back in South Africa, and if their last two conference games are derby
toughies against the Bulls (July 5) and Sharks (July 12), at least both are at
Newlands which could offer a crucial advantage at a key stage.
Stormers and Springbok captain Jean de Villiers tends to be
an upbeat character by nature at the best of times, but even by his standards
he offered a spirited protest when this writer suggested to him during a
wide-ranging interview last week (mostly on Bok matters) that the Sharks might
burst from the blocks and then stay in front, given the nature of their draw.
His views also rather flew in the face of the theory that
his own charges have a stinker: “Well, we’ve got a pretty nice draw as well. I
think we’re a team who enjoy touring, and we do that quite early.
“If we can sneak a couple of wins there, then we’re really
looking good for the rest of the tournament – quite a long home run-in period
to the (knockout phase).
“You know, with the Super Rugby draw ... every year you can
look at it and say ‘this is going to be easy, this is going to be tough’ and
then you discover that it just doesn’t work out according to that expectation
“That old principle still applies: just focus on your next
game every time, and try to get as many points from that outing as you can. Do
that for 20 weeks and then hopefully you find yourself involved in the last
phase of the competition.”
*Less than a month out from Super Rugby starting, William
Hill is offering the following title-winning odds on the SA teams: Sharks 7/1,
Stormers 9/1, Bulls 16/1, Cheetahs 33/1, Lions 125/1.
*Follow our chief
writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing